The Cask of Amontillado Historical and Social Context
by Edgar Allan Poe

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Short Story

Although there have been stories as long as there have been people to tell them, many critics trace the beginnings of the short story as a genre of written prose literature consciously developed as an art form to the nineteenth century. Previously in the West there had been great ages of epics memorized or extemporized orally, narrative poetry, drama, and the novel, but it was not until the early 1800s that critics began to describe the short story as a specific art form with its own rules and structures. In Europe, Honore de Balzac and others were already writing and theorizing about the new form. An early American voice in the discussion was Poe's. In 1842 he wrote a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842), a collection of thirty-nine brief stories and sketches, many dealing with the supernatural. In his influential review, Poe delineated the differences, as he saw them, between poetry, the novel and the ‘‘short prose narrative.’’

Rhymed poetry, according to Poe, was the highest of the genres. But the ‘‘tale proper,’’ he claimed, ‘‘affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose.'' The novel was inferior because it could not be read in one sitting, therefore making it impossible to preserve a ‘‘unity of effect or impression.’’ The ideal short story, one that could be read in thirty minutes to two hours, was created to produce one single effect. If a writer's "very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.’’ Poe praised Hawthorne and Washington Irving for their skill with the new form, and kept firmly to the goal of the ‘‘single effect’’ in his own fiction. For this reason, his prose is almost exclusively in the short story form, and he limited each story to a small number of characters, simple plots, small geographical areas, and short time frames, as demonstrated in "The Cask of Amontillado.''

National Literature

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a great call for Americans to develop a national literature, by which was meant a body of works written by Americans, published by Americans, and dealing with particularly American characters, locales, and themes. The United States was still a young country, and most American readers and writers looked to Europe for great books and great authors, as well as for literary forms and themes. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave an influential address titled ‘‘The American Scholar,’’ in which he called upon Americans to combine the best of European ideas with a determined self-knowledge, to create the new American intellectual who would best be able to lead the nation. Writers and publishers hoped that a national call for a national literature would create a stronger market for their products, which were being outsold by European imports.

Poe, although he had the same difficulty supporting himself through writing as his contemporaries, did not whole-heartedly embrace the movement. On the one hand, his published criticism and reviews railed against writers who wrote mere imitations of popular European writers. But neither did he approve of writing that was too patriotic, that offered cliched praise of the United States with little artistic merit. He was also critical of those who praised inferior work simply because it was American. Like Emerson, Poe believed in using elements from Europe if they were useful artistically, and he believed that international settings helped establish universality. Still, he called upon American writers to use their imaginations to produce original and vital works. In ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ therefore, he used a European setting to create his exotic and murky atmosphere ,...

(The entire section is 1,176 words.)